The Washington Capitals' 2 millionth fan was among the crowd of 11,819 at Capital Centre last night. Unless he was a smiling member of the Pittsburgh Penguins Fan Club, chances are he indulged in a bit of booing.
Fans, players and Coach Danny Belisle were downhearted after the Penguins, outshot 30-23, celebated a 5-2 victory.
Pittsburgh goalie Denis Herron played well, although not invincibly. Washington's Gary Inness and Jim Bedard were less effective, and once again goaltending has become a concern for the Capitals.
"We're not scoring, and I'm upset about giving up three goals I thought were soft goals," Belisle said. "They weren't good goals, that's all. The other guy's standing on his head making all kinds of stops and we make a couple of minor mistakes in our end, and they get a couple of strange goals and just sit back."
Inness yielded two of those "soft" scores among a three-goal Pittsburgh production from eight first-period shots. Then he departed, the first time he had been ordered to leave early since he joined the Capitals Dec. 17.
Bedard made eight saves during a scoreless second period and, appropriately on St. Patrick's Day, Dick Green pulled Washington within 3-2 early in the third period while playing up front, on left wing.
Dennis Maruk then cross-checked the Penguins' Rod Schutt and, following an exchange of high sticks, Maruk departed for four minutes, Schutt for two.
While Washington was shorthanded, Peter Lee skated down the right wing and fired from the outer edge of the faceoff circle. His shot slid past Bedard and nestled just inside the far post, leaving the goalie shaking his head in disgust.
Sixty-two seconds later. Maruk lost the puck to Greg Malone as he started out of the Washington zone. Malone fired over Bedard on the ensuing breakaway and the Penguins were assured their fouth victory in six games with Washington this season.
At least the Capitals can remember two victories over the Penguins. Tonight they visit Buffalo and the memories of the Sabres are all bad, 0-3, including the only other than Montreal's Ken Dryden.
There was no predicting what Belisle will try tonight, with goals so hard to find these days. Last night he tried Chuck Arnason at the point on the power play and gave Green several opportunities on the wing.
"I had lots of chances and I could have had a couple of more goals if the puck hadn't jumped over my stick," said Green, his left shoulder still taped. "I can take a shot on it (the shoulder) and I feel good. I'll play anywhere."
The Capitals managed to overcome one earlier problem, a slow start. Maruk scored his 28th goal after just 38 seconds, following some jarring checks in the Pittsburgh zone by Rolf Edberg and Tom Rowe.
But Blair Chapman tied it on a rebound, then Ross Lonsberry scored from a sharp angle on a shot that caromed off Inness' stick. Before the first period ended, it was 3-1 as Malone blasted one past Inness, the puck trickling over the goal line after the netminder got a substantial piece of it. That score eventually became Malone's fouth game winner in Pittsburgh's last five victories.
Guy Charron lined a shot off the crossbar in the first 10 seconds of the second period and it was not until 1:31 of the third that Green, in the slot, netted the second Washington goal, off Dennis Hextall's feed from the rear boards.
Back in late November, Pittsburgh was struggling in the Norris Division cellar and Coach Johnny Wilson's job status was teetering toward unemployment. Then the Penguins won back-to-back 5-3 and 7-4 decisions over the Capitals and they've been steadily moving up in class. Last night's success gave them 70 points, 16 more than the Capitals.
"We've been playing pretty stable hockey, really," Wilson said. "Dennis Herron played strong tonight and the defense was good, considering that you're on the road and when they score the first goal in 10 seconds it kind of takes the sting out of what you're trying to do out there."
So he can't tell time. At least he was smiling when he left Capital Centre.
Nearly flawless goaltending by Jim Rutherford helped the Red Wings extend their undefeated string to four games. It was Detroiths fourth road victory in seven games to go with two setbacks and a tie.